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The development of the Indo-Pacific Concept has drawn global attention to South East Asia and the South China Sea. The concept is largely attributed to the leaders of Japan, the US, Australia and India who are also grouped together under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (The Quad). The idea straddles the region covered by the countries of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and includes some APEC countries.

The Indo-Pacific is geographically an extension of the Asia-Pacific concept. But rather than restricting itself to a vision of Asia that has Myanmar as its outer limit, it is an expanded vision that englobes both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, bringing the concept to the shores of Eastern Africa and to the island countries of the Indian Ocean.

Japan, Australia, India and the US have all unveiled their Indo-Pacific policies and strategies while the ASEAN countries announced their outlook for the Indo-Pacific in 2019, as did France. Germany announced its new policy for the Indo-Pacific in 2020 and the EU is working on an Indo-Pacific policy under its presidency. For its part, China has opposed the Indo-Pacific concept and prefers the Asia-Pacific idea. China sees the Indo-Pacific concept as an effort to counter its hegemony whereas most proponents of the Indo-Pacific concept seek a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) that includes freedom of navigation, trade, etc., in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In effect, China’s attempts to counter the maritime claims of several ASEAN countries using the nine-dash line have provoked reaction. The nine-dash line has no legal basis as decided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the case won by the Philippines in 2016. China’s intent to secure its interests at the cost of the claims of the ASEAN countries—and Japan—over the Senkaku Islands, has compelled them to develop more robust policies to confront China. Different countries approach this issue in different ways, while keeping in view their ability and interest to challenge China’s growing assertiveness.

Once the Indo-Pacific includes the Indian Ocean, particularly the Western Indian Ocean, then the impact on South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia—the five African countries that have a seaboard on the Indian Ocean—becomes evident.  The impact will also be felt by the countries at the mouth of the Red Sea: Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt and Djibouti. The Islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, the Comoros, Seychelles and the French Indian Ocean territories are important parts of this construct.

Formed in 1982, the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) is perhaps the oldest body dealing with countries within the region. Institutionalised since 1984 and headquartered in Mauritius, it links the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Réunion (an overseas department and region of France). Observers on the IOC include China, India, the European Union, and the Organisation international de la francophonie (OIF). France has tremendous influence over the IOF. France also controls the island of Mayotte which did not obtain independence along with the Comoros.

Another regional arrangement is through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) which was established in 1997 and which now has 22 members and 10 Dialogue Partners. The five African countries on the Indian Ocean littoral and the four island countries make up 40 per cent of the IORA membership that extends up to Australia. It has four ASEAN countries, (Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia), four SAARC members, (India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh) and four from West Asia, (Yemen, UAE, Oman and Iran). Among the ten Dialogue Partners are China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States of America. Most of these countries are important players in the Indo-Pacific construct today. Two Quad members—India and Australia—are members of IORA, while Japan and the US are Dialogue Partners.

Since 2012, when India assumed the IORA chair, there has been a growing determination to strengthen institutions and capacities within IORA. India revitalized IORA during its chairmanship and six Priority and two Focus Areas were identified to promote sustained growth and balanced development in the Indian Ocean Region. These included maritime security, trade facilitation, management of disaster risk, fisheries, the blue economy, women’s empowerment and academic and tourism exchanges. This was largely a functional agenda but the activities gave the members access to various powers that are active in the Indo-Pacific and in the Gulf of Aden. In 2017, South Africa took the helm for two years and the chair is now with the United Arab Emirates. It has been a long time since Africa lead IORA; the first term was with Mauritius in 1997-98 and then with Mozambique in 1999-2000. So far, neither Kenya nor Tanzania have chaired the IORA.

When piracy hit the West Indian Ocean region, the navies of several IORA member countries helped control the scourge but IORA played no role in the security arrangements. However, since January 2009, the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) has provided opportunities for 21 member countries to coordinate capacities to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Western Indian Ocean. A DCoC meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in January 2017 revised the code, now known as the DCoC+ or the Jeddah Amendment. It builds on the 2009 version and encourages members to cooperate fully to repress transnational organised crime in the maritime domain, maritime terrorism, and IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing. India joined the DCoC+ as an observer in 2020 as did the EU and the Eastern Africa Standby Force. The DCoC provides IORA with stronger security elements while the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) has been reached through the DCoC+.

When piracy hit the West Indian Ocean region, the navies of several IORA member countries helped control the scourge.

In developing their Indo-Pacific outlooks, Japan and France have sought to engage Africa directly.  French policy was broadly enunciated by President Macron in May 2018 in Sydney and seeks an inclusive Indo-Pacific in which France has a growing interest. The policy speaks of promoting democratic values, protecting shipping, dealing with regional crises, and notes the presence of French forces in Djibouti, the South Indian Ocean and the UAE—with none in Asia. Economic opportunities, including the blue economy, development cooperation, Science & Technology (S&T) networks, are all part of France’s new approach to Asia and its oceans.

Dealing with terrorism and radicalization are also important goals. What is missing are direct references to Africa even though the geographic base for France in the Indian Ocean is through its Island territories of Reunion and Mayotte as well as its base in Djibouti.  For France, the Indo-Pacific space is a geographic reality. France is present in the region via its overseas territories and 93 per cent of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The region is home to 1.5 million French people, as well as the 8,000 French soldiers that are stationed there.

Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy also covers the Indian Ocean up to its African shores. At TICAD7, the Yokohama Declaration saw Japan seek African support to protect the common good of the Indo-Pacific. While the West and North African countries had a lesser interest in the Indo-Pacific, the pro-Chinese countries ensured that they only took note of the FOIP in the Declaration, which emphasized maritime security:

“We stress the importance of promoting regional and international efforts related to maritime security, including piracy, illegal fishing and other maritime crimes, maintaining a rules-based maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 12 (UNCLOS). We also underscore the importance of strengthening maritime security and safety through international and regional cooperation, as reflected in 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIM Strategy), in accordance with international maritime laws.”

Like France, the US and China, Japan too has a base in Djibouti, the focal point for much action around Indo-Pacific policies. While France and the USA have had longer-standing bases in Djibouti, the country has received greater attention due to piracy around the Gulf of Aden. Consequently, both Japan and China have established bases in Djibouti while India has access to all the bases in the country other than that of the Chinese. India also has agreements with the US and France to use their island assets and has engagements for security with Mauritius and Seychelles, and capacity building with Comoros, Madagascar and Mozambique. Kenya and Tanzania have used Indian military training teams to establish their military academies while Indian peacekeepers have operated in Somalia under the UN since the 1990s. India has also trained AMISOM contingents from Ethiopia and Uganda and has contributed to the AU’s fund for AMISOM.

Japan has been actively seeking to increase its investments in the Indian Ocean littoral and views the large projects in the Kenyan port of Mombasa and the port of Nacala in Mozambique as important and of strategic value. China is involved in the railways in Djibouti and Kenya, and the port in Djibouti but seems to have run into problems with Tanzania regarding the Bagamayo Port. A CSIS study showed that China was investing in 46 ports in Africa, four of which are on the Indian Ocean littoral—Durban, South Africa, Beira in Mozambique, Doraleh in Djibouti and Bagamayo in Tanzania. These are mostly categorized as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and some of them are strategic in nature while others are infrastructure and trade facilitators.

Japan has been actively seeking to increase its investments in the Indian Ocean littoral.

Thus, while China has a clear BRI concept of economic engagement with strategic overtones and is grasping the opportunities, the other countries which challenge its view are generating their Indo-Pacific outlooks and engaging them within their existing Africa programmes: Japan with TICAD, India with the India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS), France with its Africa policy, and the EU with its EU-African Union summit process. The US also developed a new Africa Strategy under the Trump administration. What all these programmes lack is cogent coordinated economic action. The Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is a joint India-Japan strategy that seeks to coordinate trilateral projects in conjunction with African partners.

Moreover, the need to address non-traditional security threats and to deal with Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)—as India has effectively done over the years in the region—is coming to the fore. Africa could benefit from divergent interests and capabilities but needs to be cautious in ensuring a level playing field for all its partners.